An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir

The dramatic, riveting, and timely tale of how one woman's harrowing ordeal in a harem in Afghanistan shaped her into a modern feminist leader and life-long defender of human rights. Eighteen years old and in love, Phyllis Chesler, a Jewish-American girl from Brooklyn, embarked on a passionate love affair with a glamorous foreign student, which led Chesler to her destiny and nearly to her death in Kabul —and to a journey which has lasted for more than half a century. Upon arrival, Afghan authorities seized her American passport, and Chesler found herself trapped as the property of her husband's polygamous family, without an ally and without any rights. Despite her seclusion, her mother-in-law's campaign to convert her from Judaism to Islam, and her husband's wish to permanently tie her to the country through childbirth, she escaped. Yet these lovers, a Muslim and a Jew, have remained connected ever since.

Chesler draws upon personal diaries, correspondence, memories, and research in this vivid and eye-opening account of what she learned about central Asia and the nature of gender apartheid. Though she nearly died in Afghanistan, Phyllis nostalgically recreates this beautiful, ancient, and exotic culture and country, including its Buddhist and Jewish history. An American Bride in Kabul is the story of how a naïve American girl learned to see the world through eastern as well as western eyes. She re-creates a time gone by, a place that is no more, and shares the way in which Chesler turned adversity into a passion for freedom and women's rights.

This is a psychological adventure story and constitutes another kind of travel literature. What Chesler learned about Afghan and Islamic culture will help us understand many of the global challenges of the 21st century—including fundamentalist misogyny, religious intolerance, terrorism, the fate of progressives, and cultural misunderstandings.

Buy This Book on Amazon Buy This Book on iTunes Buy This Book on Kobo Buy This Book on Barnes & Noble Buy This Book on Google Play Store Buy This Book on Indiebound

Reviews and Early Praise

"No human culture compromises the rights of women more than Islam. Today over 700 million women are directly or indirectly affected by the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Phyllis Chesler is by far the bravest and most outspoken American feminist to address the plight of Muslim women. In this book she shares with the reader her first encounter with Islam in Afghanistan. It is a moving account of the harrowing experience of one woman who almost meets her death in a culture that could not be more alien to her American upbringing. Yet every page is laden with compassion and love for the ex-husband and his family she unwittingly joined. I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school." — Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad

"Boom. Suddenly Phyllis Chesler is a prisoner in Afghanistan. Without a passport. As a wife without rights of any kind. Her bridegroom, once her equal when they met in New York, now in his own land, is a stranger…she is in an utterly male society where women and children are a man's property—"his to protect or abuse. They are his to kill. It is the way things are." This is disconcerting to say the least…She escapes. This is how it all started. This is a bold book; intimate and rich in detail; as revealing a story about class, gender and religious differences as one will find. Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She had the right training. She will never stop." — Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics and Going to Iran

"This is a wondrous, invaluable memoir and meditation on women, culture, history, and the meaning of freedom. Phyllis Chesler tells a moving story in a direct, unaffected style and is able to draw conclusions of a wider import: reflections on the complex interplay of culture, more complex than the cliché of "a clash of cultures." Chesler is remarkably generous to her husband. In trying to understand him, she is able to tease out valuable historical and cultural lessons. After fifty years of reflection, Chesler is able to distil mature and wise judgments from her dramatic experience, on the persecution and suffering of Muslim women. Chesler's own feminism really began with these experiences in Afghanistan. One of the other merits of the book is her introduction to the reader of a whole host of writers, travelers, and diplomats who have written perceptively about Islamic countries in general but on Afghanistan in particular, especially the treatment of women and slaves." — Ibn Warraq, author of Why I am Not Muslim and Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism

"With a deft pen and a half-century of experience, Chesler revisits her brief, unpleasant, but life-changing and ultimately precious time in an Afghan harem. Although hardly the only feisty Western woman to despair at finding, on their visiting his home country, her debonair Muslim husband turned into an unrecognizably primitive tyrant, she drew unique benefits from the experience. These included finding her career focus (feminism), her field of study (psychology), her world outlook (principled liberalism) –and this marvelous book." — Daniel Pipes, Director of the Middle East Forum, author of In the Path of God: Islam andPolitical Power.

"In her fascinating new memoir, Phyllis Chesler offers a vivid account of landing in Afghanistan in 1961 as a young bride – and finding herself a victim and virtual prisoner of that country's cruel anti-women customs and habits. Ms. Chesler was only 20, the product of a sheltered Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn, when she married a fellow student, a Muslim who came from a prominent Kabul family. Her companion was seductive, exotic, alluring, and seemed to promise her the world. But Ms. Chesler, who would go on to become a famous feminist leader and the author of the classic Women and Madness, attributes some of her later accomplishments, including her passionate stance on behalf of women, to insights she gained in that period. She finds herself trapped in a household replete with madness, including a mother-in-law who is sadistic and punitive and a husband who emerges as mean and uncaring. Despite her in-laws' wealth, she is often hungry, denied the foods that she can eat, and she can't even go out on her own to see a country she had longed to explore. Stripped of her U.S. passport when she landed, she finds her movements severely restricted. Many of the book's insights about 1961 Kabul seem oddly relevant to Kabul in 2013 – a culture that, if possible, has become even more heinous to women with the advent of the Taliban. This is an eye-opening work." — Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years

"With An American Bride in Kabul, Phyllis Chesler, brilliantly brings to life the plight of so many Muslim women helplessly trapped in the prison which is Islamist misogyny. Through the eyes of her innocent and insightful Brooklyn girl, Chesler provides humanity a service—a window into the internal workings of the male-dominated Islamist familial conspiracy against women. Her story is believable because it is sadly repeated millions of times around the globe. A must read, An American Bride will leave readers finally able to feel the powerlessness which overwhelms Muslim women who are victims of honor abuse and violence. Readers will leave understanding like so many Muslim reformers already do that Islamist misogyny is a Muslim problem that needs Muslim solutions." — M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD, President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy, author of The Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith.

"I love this book and could not put it down. It is the romantic and riveting story of a young woman from the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park, who rebelled against a sheltered life in which women were religiously dominated by men and who then traveled to Afghanistan where she saw women who were far more oppressed and who lived under conditions of polygamy, purdah, poverty, and the burqa. This journey sowed the seeds of a very American feminism. We learn about other westerners, especially women, who travelled this route and we learn about the ancient history of the Afghan Jewish community. This book has the power to inspire a new kind of interfaith dialogue. Book club members will discuss this work for a good long time." --Rivka Haut, Author and Orthodox agunah activist, Co-Editor of Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, Co-Editor of Women of the Wall, and Co-Editor of Shaarei Simcha Gates of Joy

"I loved every second of reading Chesler's amazing book. Kudos to her for standing in her truth. An American Bride in Kabul is a very courageous piece of work and I am in awe of Phyllis Chesler's determination to tell the truth of her experience, a truth which confirms the stories of so many Muslim women. I couldn't stop reading this book and felt Phyllis's powerful words grabbing my heart and opening up the deep emotions. A must read!" — Soraya Miré, Author of The Girl With Three Legs

"Phyllis Chesler's 'An American Bride in Kabu'" is the most compelling autobiography I have read in a long time. It not only vividly tells us about women's lives in Afghanistan from the perspective of an American woman, but more importantly how and why American women fall into the trap of an Islamic marriage." — Nonie Darwish, Author ofThe Devil We Don't Know: The Dark Side of Revolutions in the Middle East

"Phyllis Chesler's brilliant and courageous memoir will resound in your heart and mind long after you turn the final page. Dr. Chesler, an American Jewish woman, escaped from starvation and isolation in Afghanistan--and came close to death in the process. Perhaps most inspiring is Dr. Chesler's voyage in using those unimaginable experiences as a springboard to become a leader of women's rights around the globe. Her decades of academic and professional work advocating for women who cannot cry out for themselves is a tremendous legacy: the seeds of this deep calling were sown in Afghanistan and are now recounted here in this moving and marvelous book." — Sara Aharon, author of From Kabul to Queens: The Jews of Afghanistan and Their Move to the United States

Chesler pens a cautionary tale of the perils of far-flung passion and the hazards of romantic exoticism. In precise, pungent and, at times, granular detail, she summons a world festooned by fanatsy and myth. In "An American Bride in Kabul," she gives full-throated voice to the beguilements of the East, etching a portrait-in-the-round, at once grand and engrossing. — Michael Skakun, author of On Burning Ground. A Son's Memoir

Phyllis Chesler's newest book is rich and operatic, taking us into a world few of us have known about, telling us in descriptive, historical, political, religious, and deeply personal detail things that can transform our ways of thinking and feeling about everything from interpersonal dynamics to global politics. And this book illuminates one major reason she has for decades been the insightful, ardent, tireless feminist educator and activist she became. — Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., Harvard University psychologist and author of, among others, The Myth of Women's Masochism and Don't Blame Mother

In 1961 renowned feminist, professor, and psychotherapist Chesler was as a young, intellectually curious Jewish woman intent on rebellion and freedom. She envisioned her marriage to a man she met in college, a Westernized Muslim from a wealthy Afghani family, as a romantic adventure filled with travel and intellectual pursuits; however, their visit to Afghanistan quickly turned into a living nightmare as Chesler became confined to the harem at his luxurious family compound. "My unexpected house arrest was not as shocking as was my husband's refusal to acknowledge it as such," Chesler writes. The author divides her engrossing memoir into two sections: her time as a young bride living with of one the wealthiest families in Afghanistan and struggling to return to the United States, and her husband's attempts to force her return to Afghanistan. Chesler candidly relates her continuing friendship with her former husband and his family over the last 50 years, detailing how life in Afghanistan forged her feminist perspective and how 9/11 altered the original focus of the memoir. Chesler adroitly blends her personal narrative with a riveting account of Afghanistan's troubled history, the ongoing Islamic/Islamist terrorism against Muslim civilians and the West, and the continuing struggle and courage of Afghan feminists. (Oct.) — Publishers Weekly

A renowned psychotherapist's richly compelling memoir about how her experiences as an Afghan man's wife shaped her as both a feminist and human rights activist. At 18, Chesler (Psychology and Women's Studies, Emeritus/City Univ. of New York; The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom, 2005, etc.) fell in love with the scion of a wealthy family from Afghanistan. She was Jewish, and her "prince," Abdul-Kareem, was Muslim. Their affair was as unexpected as it was unlikely and led to an even more improbable marriage. Dreaming that she and Abdul-Kareem would travel the world "like gypsies or abdicating aristocrats who have permanently taken to the road," they went to Abdul-Kareem's home in Kabul. A starry-eyed Chesler soon found herself stripped of her passport and a prisoner of her husband's family. Using diaries, letters, interviews, and research and other writings about Afghanistan and the Islamic world, the author offers an illuminating depiction not only of her time as a harem wife, but also of the "gender apartheid" under which Afghan women must live. Chesler could go nowhere and do nothing, including see a doctor, without her husband or other male relative's permission. She also found herself at the mercy of a maniacal mother-in-law who forced her to convert to Islam and a husband-turned-tyrant bent on keeping his wife in Afghanistan by any means necessary, including pregnancy. A life-threatening illness eventually moved her father-in-law to get her an exit visa to the United States. Chesler managed to get a divorce only after great difficulty. Yet her contentious relationship with the man whom she once saw as her spiritual "twin" endured. Intelligent, powerful and timely. — Kirkus Review

Chesler's personal story is fascinating and her insights on women's lives in Afghanistan [are] certainly worth reading.. — Booklist

"…this is a harrowing personal history that reads like a novel…Her fluid, evocative style and use of the present tense make you feel like you are the young bride herself, taking in the city's sights, sounds, and smells. This is a study of women's rights and the psychology of Afghan culture." -- The Lady (UK)

Prisoner of Love

An American girl grows up quickly in Afghanistan.

Bruce Bawer at Weekly Standard

Chesler—to her immense credit—doesn’t buy it. Quaintly enough, she’s opposed to the violation of women’s rights wherever she sees it, and doesn’t hesitate to say so. Her reaction to 9/11 was to pay even greater attention than before to abuses in the Muslim world, including honor killings and other “honor”-related violence, as well as to the increasing demonization of Israel—subjects that she has researched in depth and written about with a thoroughly justified indignation. 

As a result, she has become persona non grata in the groves of academe. When I attended a women’s studies convention a couple of years back, Chesler’s name came up in more than one session, always pronounced in the same contemptuous tone by the ambitious young grad students and junior faculty who dismissed her as a “white Western hegemonic feminist” who doesn’t realize that ticklish matters like honor killings need “to be positioned within a trans-national postcolonial feminist perspective” (a fancy way of saying “hands off”). 

One reason Chesler refuses to take a “transnational postcolonial feminist perspective” on the mistreatment of women in Islamic cultures is that she’s been there. She was a mere teenager—a nice, New York Jewish girl, very intelligent but also very naïve—when she fell head over heels for a wealthy, exotic, sophisticated fellow student at Bard, tied the knot in a trice, and, her head filled with romantic images of a lifetime of international travel, bookish conversation, and passionate lovemaking, moved with him in 1961 to his family home in Kabul. 

But as she recounts in this remarkable memoir, her glamorous beloved—who, in the United States, had been a staunch supporter of sexual equality—metamorphosed in Afghanistan into a stern enforcer of traditional gender roles. Deprived of her passport, denied freedom of movement, and severely reprimanded for the slightest sign of insubordination, she spent her days locked up with the clan’s other females (including the mother-in-law from hell), in a harem where there was nothing for them to do except gossip, bicker, plot against one another, and consume the endless pots of tea and little cakes that the servants kept bringing in on trays.

Chesler’s account of this period of captivity, during which she endured an illness that brought her close to death, is never less than riveting. But it’s more than just (as they say) one woman’s remarkable story: Chesler brings to her material—the raw experiences she underwent as an unworldly girl—a half-century of personal reflection about that episode of her life, decades of professional work in human psychology, and years of research into Muslim (especially Afghan) history and culture. In addition to providing ample excerpts from the diaries she kept at the time—juxtaposing, to striking effect, the voice of the callow girl with that of the wise and erudite woman—Chesler quotes from a great many books, some of them over a century old, by other Westerners who visited Afghanistan, including Western women who, like her, made the mistake of marrying into a culture about which they knew next to nothing. 

The result is an utterly enthralling work in which every page is rich with insight. But the real triumph here is that Chesler’s account of her Afghan sojourn—which makes up the first half of An American Brideand feels un-toppable—is, in fact, overshadowed by what follows. For it turns out that Chesler, after making it back to America against her husband’s wishes, gradually reestablished a unique, if consistently tense and uneasy, friendship with him that has endured to this day. 

One hardly knows what to make of this. On the one hand, Chesler’s compassion for her ex-husband—who, eventually, also had to flee Afghanistan for America, and whom she now regularly hosts in her Manhattan apartment—speaks extremely well of her. On the other hand, her readiness to forgive him, not only for his long-ago deception and tyranny, but also for his continuing patriarchal arrogance and condescension, almost makes one want to see her behave like a real hardcore feminist and kick him in the pants before tossing him out the door. 

But that’s not all. Before the book ends, Chesler shares a dark fact about her ex-husband’s family history that she discovered relatively recently—and that forced her to sit down for a few moments to catch her breath. The revelation, which is also guaranteed to shake up any sympathetic reader,  underscores just how dark and treacherous the waters were into which a young girl once, long ago, so eagerly, ignorantly, and recklessly dove. 

In the final analysis, this is not only the extraordinarily engaging and moving story of a young woman and the man she once loved—and still, now, despite her formidable intelligence and instincts, clearly continues to love in some mysterious way. It is the story of two civilizations: one of them ancient, and yet considerably less than civilized; and the other, for all its newness, perhaps too civilized to acknowledge just how far short the other falls of true civilization.

Readers' Prize Picks: October 2013

Phyllis Chesler's memoir takes us on a hypnotic journey through Afghanistan's bloody past, present, and tentative future. Using her journal, written while she was a young bride in Kabul, and later conversations with her ex-husband, Chesler weaves the tale of a naïve Jewish-American college student who falls in love with an Afghan Muslim only to flee from him when she becomes a prisoner in their new home. The reader is swept away by Chesler's passion and urgency. Her memoir is a call to action for women's rights everywhere. — Ashley Cambers, Perrysburg, OH

There is something naïve and intriguing about an American woman who marries a Middle Eastern man and returns home with him, only to discover she's not living in a palace decorated with jewels or being served exotic meals. In some respects this book reads like an academic piece, the author's experiences cross-referenced with historical and political events and other authors' works. The title of the book does not do it justice; it is a work of art that spans more than five decades and shares the intimate story of an enduring friendship. —Kathryn Kandas, Princeton, WV

Through Phyllis Chesler's vivid, chilling imagery, her readers are transported across the world and into 1960s Afghanistan. Chesler's memoir of her life as a bride held captive in a foreign land is in many ways a nightmare, yet her perseverance and detailed descriptions of her exotic prison place the audience right with her, from the spice market to her groom's household. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the life-long impact left by her travels—including her undying efforts to achieve women's rights. — Maggie Malach, New York City

Even if you think you know how bad the situation is for Afghan woman, this book is a real eye-opener, chock full of details that are almost unbelievable. — Gena Hymowech, Brooklyn, NY

Chesler's writing is vibrant and brings the diversity of the Afghanistan landscape and people to life on the page. This book is a testament to things we will do for love, and an example of the human will to survive in situations that seem to have no way out. — Rachel Stottlemyer, Waynesboro, PA

This story begged to be told. Like a train wreck seen through a crystal ball, the reader foresees the tears and trauma of such an epic betrayal. Thoroughly gripping. — Jessica Shaver, Sandy, Oregon

Back To Top